A Sinkhole Sounds a Nuclear Warning

As nuclear facility accidents go, the recent one at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the Columbia River in Washington State was relatively minor. Still, some workers were hurriedly evacuated and others ordered to stay inside buildings across the 500 square-mile safekeeping location for radioactive waste dating from World War II.

Last Tuesday, a large sinkhole at the site was discovered to have caved in onto an old rail tunnel filled with radioactive waste. No one was hurt and no radiation escaped into the environment before the sinkhole was filled in with more than 50 truckloads of soil late Wednesday night, according to the Energy Department. In fact, the large amount of dirt that fell into the tunnel after its roof collapsed may have prevented radiation from escaping into the environment.

But according to a spokesperson for the Department of Energy (DOE), the federal agency charged with overseeing the site, the cave-in might have happened as many as four days before its discovery, not a reassuring thought. According to Washington state Department of Ecology nuclear waste manager Alex Smith, any escaped radioactivity would have been detected immediately by monitoring devices. But he added that “It’s not acceptable that the hole could have been open for four days.”

In fact, Washington state officials were taken aback upon learning after the collapse that tunnel inspections were made on an apparently infrequent basis.

The Hanford Site is a mostly decommissioned nuclear production complex, established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the World War II research and development undertaking that produced the first nuclear weapons. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the famous “Trinity site” in New Mexico, and in “Fat Man,” the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.

In its early days, the Hanford site’s safety procedures and waste disposal practices were inadequate, and government documents reveal that the facility’s operations released significant amounts of radioactive materials into the air and into the Columbia River decades ago.

And, while the weapons production reactors were decommissioned at the end of the Cold War, left behind were 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste, stored within 177 storage tanks, an additional 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste, and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater beneath the site.

In 1989, production at the Hanford site stopped entirely, and work shifted to cleanup of portions of the site contaminated with hazardous substances. The cleanup process, however, has been plagued by problems and delays. Originally scheduled to be complete within 30 years, the cleanup was less than half finished by 2008; and the estimated cost of the remaining cleanup, which will involve 11,000 onsite workers, is $113.6 billion.

In 2007, the Hanford site represented two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume, and it remains the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. Some nuclear experts have called Hanford “an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.” That reference, of course, is to the Chernobyl Disaster of 1986, in the Ukrainian Republic, then part of the Soviet Union, when an explosion and fire at a nuclear plant there resulted in widespread contamination, which contributed to the deaths of dozens of emergency workers, untold numbers of birth defects and the radiation sickening of thousands.

New York, of course, has a nuclear power plant of its own, the Indian Point Energy Center, on the east bank of the Hudson River, just south of Peekskill, 30-odd miles from New York City. One of its reactors has been permanently shut down but two others provide some of the region’s energy needs, and will do so until their own planned shutdown in 2021.

And the local plant has not been without its own problems. In 2008, researchers located a previously unknown active seismic zone passing less than a mile from the Indian Point nuclear plant. In the summer of 2013, a former Indian Point plant supervisor was arrested for falsifying critical safety records and lying to federal regulators. And, in 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo informed the public that radioactive tritium-contaminated water at Indian Point had leaked into the groundwater.

There are close to 100 other nuclear reactors nationwide. Warning signs like the recent, thankfully minor, accident at Hanford should serve to remind us that nuclear facilities, active and decommissioned alike, carry real risks and require real monitoring. And they should impel us to insist that the government provide sufficient funds to ensure that every possible safety measure is in place, so that a remarkable source of energy will not, chalilah, become a terrible source of death and disease.